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Whit Stillman made a name for himself making semiautobiographical, deadpan, highly literate comedies about the night lives of idle heirs (his 1990 Oscar-nominated debut Metropolitan), privileged Americans abroad (Barcelona, 1994), and resilient yuppies in decadent early '80s Manhattan (The Last Days of Disco, 1998). But for more than a decade, Stillman has been best known as a filmmaker who could not get a film off the ground. Projects were announced — an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's political satire Little Green Men; a period piece set in Jamaica called Dancing Mood — and then . . . nothing. But earlier this month, Sony Pictures Classics released Damsels in Distress, the 60-year-old writer-director's fourth film and first in 14 years.
On a Monday night in mid-March, over dinner at the Chateau Marmont — Stillman's choice because it's walking distance from the friend's house where he stays for free when in L.A. — I ask him how it feels to be presenting a new film to the world after all this time. "I'm very worried," Stillman says, his eyes fixed on a spot on the table somewhere past his chicken. "I'm a worrying person."
Damsels in Distress tells the story of life at a fictional East Coast university. Very fictional: Coeds hang Renoir and Ophüls posters on dorm walls, and scholarship student Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) plots to change the world by launching an "international dance craze." Violet is the self-appointed leader of a coterie of anti-mean girls: Outfitted in hoopskirts and prim blouses, speaking in strangely formal prose, she, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) extol the benefits of hygiene and choreographed dance to a depressed and cluelessly debauched student body. According to Violet, the problem with "contemporary social life" is "the tendency to seek someone cooler than oneself." Instead, she proudly dates "losers" and "sad sacks," drawn to the potential of a fixer-upper. At orientation, Violet welcomes transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into the fold. Lily accepts an invitation to bunk with the girls, but she's unable to swallow their pretensions unquestioningly: Dressed in "normal" casual college attire, she rejects their offer of a makeover.
Initially positioned as Lily's frenemy antagonist, Violet is soon sent into what she calls "a tailspin" by a romantic rejection. Through Violet's retreat from public life, Stillman slowly reveals the character to be a compulsive liar and an impostor — and humanizes her in the process. The crazier Violet gets and the more staunchly Lily embraces "normalcy" in contrast, the more Violet emerges as the heroine of the film.
Violet finds her ideal match in another student who plays fast and loose with identity, played by The O.C.'s Adam Brody. Violet's attraction to Brody's character stems from the revelation that they both have invented alternate personalities for themselves, in part out of idealistic ambition: They actually want to make the world a better place, and they start by making over themselves. Out of a period of struggle, rejection, and depression, Stillman has made what he calls "the most utopian of all" of his four films. "The three previous ones were utopian in a quieter way, but this one is full-on."
Now that he has finally made another film, Stillman can't stop making it — at the time of our conversation, three weeks before Damsels' release, he was still tweaking. Since the movie's première at the Venice Film Festival, he says, there have been "huge changes"; Stillman seems particularly proud of the cuts made regarding one subplot involving a character's sexual proclivities in order to secure a PG-13 rating. "There's less anal sex in this cut. Did you notice that?" he asks. "I like that people could have their 8-year-old child walk in." He calls it "our Lubitsch moment."
When I suggest that he's probably sick to death of talking about what he has been doing since 1998, Stillman quickly says: "I'm not sick to death of it. In a word: failure."
Disco was a financial and critical disappointment, and the director indicates that his long hiatus started as wound-licking. "I was kind of feeling beaten up after Disco," Stillman says. "I felt we were unfairly treated. It's really tough, making a film. So I did want some time just to exist and to write."
Stillman moved to Paris with his then-wife and two daughters. Although he might have been off the grid in a sense, he was hardly idle. He wrote TV pilots for paychecks. ("The commissioning-versus-pilot-making ratio, it must be that 97 percent of scripts sit on a shelf. I wrote one script, very well-paid, that I'm not sure anyone ever read.") He turned down an offer to direct episodes of Sex and the City, out of squeamishness over the explicit sexual content. A billionaire who Stillman will not name ("I don't want to slander the handicapped") signed on to finance and then abruptly backed away from Little Green Men. Dancing Mood got as far as a trip to Kingston to cast actors and scout locations before funding fell through. There were sundry other experiences with "this or that producer or financier [who] didn't come forward when we expected they would."
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